Cleatus Rattan reflects on his work and his year as Texas' top bard
By Peter Hofstad
Cleatus Rattan's reign as the Texas Poet Laureate is coming to an end. Since mid-2004, the former Cisco Community College professor has served as the state's top bard, traveling from town to town, giving readings at colleges and clubs, and promoting his award-winning collection of poems, The Border.
Rattan ('65, '69 M.Ed.) is as individual as Texas and equally mired in contradictions: a cowboy who wields the pen instead of the whip, a rancher turned professor of English, and a man who hates small towns yet has lived in one for almost all his life. But what stands out above all else is his rugged prose.
"I tend to write elegies, I think," Rattan says. "My poems are a litany of love poems for my wife, my father and mother, for the (Marine) Corps and for ranch life."
Rattan, who graduated from North Texas with his bachelor's in psychology and his master's in education, met his wife, Connie Hood Rattan ('61), while studying at the university.
"I met my wife in a French class taught by Dr. (Robert) Hardin. He told me I wasn't good enough for her, and he was right, but we have been exceedingly happy for 44 years now."
His wife sang in the a cappella choir and earned her degree in music.
Two of his sons also went to UNT.
"My baby son, Raiford, now a podiatrist, earned a B.A. in psychology in '94," he says. "My oldest son, Randall, received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UNT in 1994. He played on a championship football team in 1983 at UNT," Rattan proudly adds.
Rattan says he sometimes felt his achievements were overshadowed by his sons' athletic and varying career successes. He had received recognition before, such as the Texas Review Poetry Prize in 1982 for his book 130 Miles to Dallas, but was still largely unknown. That all changed when Rattan received word that he was being named Poet Laureate of Texas.
The state poet laureate is chosen annually by a congressional committee appointed by the lieutenant governor. According to Paul Ruffin, director of the Texas Review Press at Sam Houston State University, Rattan's recent book, The Border, caught the attention of the committee and earned him the honor.
According to Rattan, it's a dream job.
"A poet laureate does exactly as he or she wants to do, which is to say there are no official duties," he says.
In addition to the poet laureate honor, 35 of Rattan's poems from The Border were selected by the Texas University Interscholastic League for its "literary criticism reading list," studied by high school students seeking college scholarships. Rattan is the only living poet to be chosen for the list. The last three years, the poets studied have been Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay and William Wordsworth.
"Nice company to be in," says Rattan, "deserved or not."
Creation and sanity
Rattan doesn't feel that success has affected the way he writes.
"I don't think my writing has changed since I became poet laureate, though I think I am always changing as almost all poets do, in that I think my recent poems are more formal and more sophisticated than the ones in The Border," he says.
He says he has an internal need to write poetry, that it's something just automatic to him at this stage of his life.
"I am in control in a poem, something like being God in a miniscule way. Even a small way is good," he says. "I know I have to write poems, as I suspect God had to create a world. Who would do such things if he or she didn't have to?"
Rattan also writes to keep himself sane.
"I write poetry to chase away the dark. I am ‘given' to anxiety and depression," he says. "Poetry helps me to fight away those black demons."
Rattan first became intrigued with writing when he heard a lecture given by the poet Jack Myers in 1978.
"Jack continues to hold my interest though he has changed voices many times since I heard him read," Rattan says. "He had some strange impact on me that night, and I wanted to try to write like he does."
Rattan also cites North Texas professors like Bob Stevens and Jim Linebarger.
"I remember English classes with them — two extraordinary and brilliant men. They were funny and insightful. They made me want to be like them," Rattan says. "I took two courses from each of them and then would stop by to attend other classes of theirs for the pure pleasure of sitting at their feet and listening to them think."
After his term ends as poet laureate, Rattan's schedule shows no signs of slowing down.
"I don't know what an ex poet laureate does, but I have speaking engagements lined up all over the state after my term ends this April," he says.
In addition to his stately duties, Rattan has now taken a position as Mayborn Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
His next book, titled Take Your Time Coming Home, comes out in March.
"I don't expect it to sell quite as well as The Border, but it is better poetry," Rattan says.